In part three of our journey we come to the book everyone loves to hate – Leviticus. Most people have never read through it, and who can blame them? Half of it is about cutting up animals, and the rest is about stuff you mustn’t do or eat. The book raises all kinds of awkward questions, like ‘Who on earth thought this lot up?’ and ‘What has this got to do with me trying to live for Jesus in the 21st century?’ Realistically we ignore it much of the time: the fact that wearing polycotton clothes is forbidden does little to affect my lifestyle: think of all that extra ironing if I stuck to pure cotton. And whilst I’ve never been tempted to sit down to a nice hoopoe madras I do happen to love prawns, so I happily ignore that stuff too. And yet when Christians see, for example, homosexual acts roundly condemned in the same book, they want to stick rigidly to that particular law.
There is also the question of importance. Not selling your daughter into prostitution seems quite a good idea, but is it really in the same league of holiness as not cutting the edge of your beard? The book seems weird, outdated, disproportionately concerned with pointless details, and yet somehow we can’t seem just to do away with it in its entirety. So what do we do with it?
Standing back and taking a bigger view, we can soon see that it does tell us some significant truths. Three seem to stand out: worship is important, we need rules to live by, for our health and stability, and we screw up and somehow have to cope with that.
The amount of attention given to the minutiae of the celebrations and festivals shows us a God who wants to be worshipped, and who wants to be worshipped well. Taken as a whole there is a balance of different moods, seasons and occasions. We have already seen from Exodus that the physical setting for worship is important, and that only the best will do. Perhaps surprisingly Leviticus urges Christians to think about how we worship, the quality of it, and, most pointedly, whether we construct our worship around what we happen to like, or on God’s terms.
Secondly Leviticus reminds us that any society needs rules to live by. Whilst we might find some of these a bit strange, in context they make some sense if you remember that ‘health’ for a society involves physical wellbeing (so be careful what you eat – pork harbours tapeworms, molluscs can really get you into trouble, and hoopoes … well!); and it involves stable family life, so no prostitution or anything which would compromise family and tribal stability, and make punishments fair and not excessive. In addition, though, for the Israelite community it meant purity for their worship and identity, hence all kinds of laws which were like visual aids to them that if you mix and match, things go wrong. You only have to look at the subsequent history of Israel to see how often things went pear-shaped when their devotion to God was compromised through syncretistic worship and lifestyle. So polycotton shirts may not be mortally sinful, but they could be a daily reminder of the need to remain single-mindedly devoted to your God.
Thirdly there is so much detail about sacrifice and sin-offerings because in the human race there is so much sin. The seriousness of the solution speaks volumes about the seriousness of the problem, a problem which must involve the shedding of blood (Heb 9:22), and which is only going to be solved finally when the blood of Christ is shed on the cross.
What really makes the book fascinating, though, is the issue of ‘hermeneutics’, the branch of theology which deals with the appropriate interpretation of the Bible for today. How does it all work? Is it OK to read Lev 18:22 and interpret it to mean “‘Having sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman is fine by me”, says the Lord.’ And how is that different from eating a prawn cocktail? There are answers to these questions, rules in the hermeneutics game, as it were, but they are not simple, and that is partly why this book comes over as difficult. However, we still need it!